Washington Auburn Football

Auburn running back JaTarvious Whitlow proved last season he can handle a heavy workload. [JOHN BAZEMORE/THE ASSOCIATED PRESS]

AUBURN — At this time last year, there was probably no position on the team that faced more questions than running back. The early departures of Kerryon Johnson and Kamryn Pettway left Auburn with an inexperienced group trying to fill large shoes: returning players Kam Martin and Malik Miller; redshirt freshman JaTarvious Whitlow; and true freshmen Shaun Shivers, Harold Joiner and Asa Martin.

One year later, the names are almost identical — Asa Martin is gone (he has since transferred to and left Miami), and 2019 signees D.J. Williams and Mark-Antony Richards have joined the group — but the questions have subsided. We know who the Tigers’ top running backs are and what skills they have.

All that’s left to learn now is how they’ll be used by a new running backs coach (Cadillac Williams) and offensive coordinator (Kenny Dillingham) now that head coach Gus Malzahn has returned to calling the plays on offense.

The lineup 

Kam Martin (Sr.), Malik Miller (Jr.), Shaun Shivers (So.), JaTarvious Whitlow (So.), Harold Joiner (R-Fr.), Mark-Antony Richards (Fr.), D.J. Williams (Fr.)

What we know

Auburn holds its run game to a lofty standard, and the players who were a part of that run game do not feel they lived anywhere near up to it last season.

The Tigers averaged 3.86 yards per carry against FBS opponents, the lowest total of Malzahn’s six years as head coach. They didn’t produce a 1,000-yard rusher (Whitlow was closest at 787 yards), which snapped the program’s nine-year streak.

“We weren't satisfied with what we did. I feel like we let down the tradition,” Kam Martin said. “We’re going to go get that tradition back. We’re going to get back to RBU.”

There’s reason to believe this group can. For starters, last year’s struggles in the run game weren’t all their own. The offensive line got off to a poor start, and even as it improved late in the season, the offense as a whole really never found its footing until the Music City Bowl rout of Purdue.

Plus, there is a lot to like about the running backs the Tigers have. Whitlow showed flashes of brilliance (his go-ahead touchdown against Washington and 100-yard games against LSU and Ole Miss) and might have reached that 1,000-yard mark had he not been hurt late in the season. Martin is a steady veteran who has proven himself more than capable as a change-of-pace speed back. The 5-foot-7 Shivers is a unique and explosive athlete who may have only scratched the surface of his ability. D.J. Williams might have been the most impressive of the group on A-Day, showing off his balance of power and speed.

What will be interesting to see is how first-year running backs coach Cadillac Williams deploys these players. Will Auburn try to find one bell cow, like it did with Pettway in 2016 and Johnson in 2017? Or will it employ a more by-committee approach? Williams and Dillingham are both familiar with the latter. Both Williams and Ronnie Brown rushed for 900 yards each splitting the load for the Tigers in 2004, and Dillingham was the offensive coordinator at Memphis when both Darrell Henderson and Patrick Taylor Jr. rushed for 1,000 yards last season.

Regardless, it seems the Tigers are at least in position to get back to what they’ve become known for in the run game.

“We ain’t up to the standard yet,” Whitlow said, “but we’re working up to the standard.”

What we don't know 

How will Joiner factor into the offense, if he factors in at all? The former four-star running back recruit out of Mountain Brook remains an interesting case.

At 6-foot-4 and 215 pounds, Joiner offers tantalizing athletic potential. But he hasn’t really found a home on the field. When he signed in 2018, Malzahn saw him in the Chris Clay mold — someone who could play both H-back and tight end. But he appeared in only two games last season, rushing three times for 9 yards out of the Wildcat against Alabama State in Week 2.

So, this past spring, the vision for Joiner shifted to what Johnson was during his freshman year in 2015 — a hybrid running back and slot receiver. On A-Day, he rushed six times for 21 yards and caught three passes for 28 yards.

Maybe that role will continue to develop in the regular season.

"He’s versatile. We’ve talked about that. He’s like a receiver, but also when you give him the ball, you see he has acceleration, he’s got burst. He’s a really big guy too," Malzahn said. "He’s a guy we really feel like we can move around next year and try to get some matchups we like. I really like his versatility and been very impressed with his toughness. He’s really had a good, physical spring. The fact that he’s kind of playing two positions, being young, I think that says a lot about him too."

They said it

“I think when you’re a team that wants to be able to run the ball, throw vertical play-action, you’re going to have to have multiple backs and you’re going to have to have multiple backs who can do various things. Because when you have different players who can line up on the same spot on the field, defenses have to play those players differently. The more people you can put in different spots, the more things defenses have to prepare for. That’s always something we’re going to try to do: give playmakers the ball in as many places and in as many spots as possible.” — Kenny Dillingham

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